What can you buy with bitcoins?
Michael Garyet is keeping his eyes on bitcoins -- an Internet currency that's getting more and more attention from the media and entrepreneurs who are developing ways to make use of it.
"It solves a lot of what could be considered the really big problems of finance," Garyet says.
A Kalamazoo resident who works in contract negotiations for cable companies, Garyet is active in the Bitcoin community and hopes to develop a business around the currency in the future.
Right now his interest is that of an investor. He has made transactions and recently traded a collection of physical coins for bitcoins. He successfully mailed the coins to Lichtenstein and received $20 in bitcoins in return.
Garyet says the trade was something of an experiment and he was pleased at how smoothly it went and how much he saved by not having to pay fees and costs associated with international currency exchange rates.
It's difficult to make small transactions across large distances using physical currency. With bitcoins, such financial interactions are simplified. Using bitcoins for payments eliminates the middle person -- a bank or service like PayPal -- and the fees that can be associated with such transactions.
For those saying, wait, wait, what are you talking about -- keep reading.
Bitcoins are a currency created on the Internet for use on the Internet.
A person who called himself Satoshi Nakamoto -- it may not be his real name -- put the Internet-only currency in circulation in 2009. He created a currency that has no physical form but instead is a technology protocol like Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP), File Transfer Protocol (FTP) and Voice Over Internet Protocol (VoIP). Advanced cryptography is built into the protocol. (Nakamoto launched the currency and participated in the Bitcoin community for 18 months then disappeared, creating an ongoing sense of mystery regarding the father of bitcoins.)
The online currency is not backed by any government and it gets its value from being scarce and being easy to use -- monetary transactions are cheaper. Transactions also are irreversible by design to make transactions more like cash.
Bitcoins are released into the market through a system known as mining. It takes specialized equipment to mine bitcoins and sophisticated understanding of how the software and hardware work together to locate the bitcoins. The mathematical calculations behind the system allow bitcoins to go onto the market at a specific rate, so to keep the release at an established rate if a lot more miners put their computers to work solving the calculations the math becomes more difficult.
When all the bitcoins have been mined there will be a total of 21 million of them in circulation. But as virtual coins they can be divided into very tiny denominations.
The experts say it's no longer practical for the average person to mine for bitcoins. The cost of the electricity to run the computers would outstrip what new miners might expect by extracting new bitcoins from the system.
Instead, bitcoins now are being accumulated by purchasing them and using them in other financial transactions.
Forbes recently published a list of the Bitcoin Richest
, those who have accumulated the largest balance of bitcoins. The magazine described the allure of the new currency, saying: "In a broad sense, bitcoin wealth offers protection from unpredictable political risk such as sovereign confiscation, excessive taxation, and capital controls at the border."
The blog of BitInstant
, one company leading the move away from physical currency, describes Bitcoin as a technology "which is reshaping not only exchange, markets, and finance, but also social and political structures around the world, in ways few people have internalized."
And in late June, when the American seed-stage startup funding firm Y-Combinator decided to fund Coinbase
, a company that is trying to make bitcoins readily available to the masses, a new audience was introduced to the currency through the resulting media coverage.
Garyet is among the believers. He says he thinks Bitcoins is going to be huge. In fact, his perspective is that right now Bitcoins are where the Internet was in 1995 -- when web browsers improved and multiplied and the number of internet users doubled in a year from about 20 million to 40 million on its way to more than 2 billion today.
Bitcoins still is in the realm of a relatively small group of specialists. But as the hurdles come down and bitcoins become easier to use, "it will be as simple as sending an email," Garyet says. And it could be coming quickly, perhaps as early as next year, he predicts.
Bitcoins already are getting easier to acquire through major exchanges
. Businesses are growing up around the new currency, such as one that offers a Bitcoin debit card. Others are being created to handle and transfer funds.
It’s being adopted as a payment method for online commerce because it comes without the fees associated with credit card companies, payments cannot be reversed and international transactions are simpler. For consumers, transactions are anonymous so the threat of identity theft is gone.
Disruptive technology is a phrase often overused these days, but Bitcoins fits the definition. PayPal, Western Union and credit card companies all stand to lose if Bicoins move into the mainstream.
It operates on the same decentralized type of peer-to-peer technology that's behind downloading music and that changed the face of the music industry.
Garyet also says he expects Bitcoins is going to be around for a very long time. It’s already in use in countries around the world and the Internet would have to be shut down in order to stop it at this point, he says.
For skeptics who decry Bitcoin as the haven of drug money launderers, scammers and ponzi schemers, Garyet says that dollars are used exactly the same way.
"Some people view it as risky. And there are people who will use it for unethical purposes, but that's not the direction I see it going long term.
"It's like any other financial transaction," Garyet says. "You have to do your homework and research a person or company you are dealing with."
Kathy Jennings is Managing Editor of Southwest Michigan's Second Wave. She is a freelance editor and writer.
Photos by Erik Holladay.
For more information
Michael Garyet can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Other sources of information: • WeUseCoins.com
• BitcoinWiki Blockchain.info
And Bitinstant’s Erik Voorhees offers “A Business Primer on the Bitcoin Ecosystem.”